Culture

Review of Yehuda Landy: Purim and the Persian Empire

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Mitchell First

In 2010, Feldheim Publishers published Purim and the Persian Empire by Yehuda Landy, an Orthodox rabbi and educator in Israel. Landy knew very little about ancient Persia until around 2006, when he visited a special exhibit on this subject at the British Museum. As he looked around at the displays, he was shocked at how much archaeological material there was that confirmed details of the Megillah. Since he knew that the vast majority of the Orthodox world knew nothing about this material, he decided to collect it and publish it as a book. He included a text of the Megillah as well, so the reader can use his book while following along with the reading.

The book has wonderful color photos of archaeological findings. These include the remains at ancient Shushan and several other Persian palaces from this period, the inscription at Behistun of Darius that tells the story of his rise to power,[1] many cuneiform inscriptions from the reign of Xerxes, a relief with an image of Xerxes sitting on a throne,[2] the tombs of the ancient Persian kings, and ancient Persian drinking vessels and seals.

Landy’s goal is to help the reader visualize the sites and items mentioned in the Megillah, and he succeeds admirably in this regard. He writes that when he showed the prototype to two gedolei Yisrael, their response was identical: “When are you going to print this?”

But the author faced a difficulty in deciding how to present the material, because Hazal and secular chronology have two different views of the number and order of the kings of the Persian period.

According to Hazal, the Persian period spanned only the reigns of Koresh, Ahashverosh, and Daryavesh. The total of the years of these kings was 52 (if we include the one- year reign of Daryavesh of Madai who preceded Koresh). Based on the chronology of Hazal, it can be calculated that the Persian period commenced with the reign of Koresh in the year 368 BCE. Thereafter, Ahashverosh reigned from 366 to 352 BCE. The Temple was rebuilt in 351 BCE in the reign of the next king, Daryavesh.[3] This chronology of Hazal, i.e., the chronology of the Talmud,[4] is based on the Tannaitic work Seder Olam, authored/edited by the Tanna R. Yose.[5]

In contrast, in secular chronology, the Persian period spanned the reigns of more than ten Persian kings, including Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius I, Xerxes, Artaxerxes I, Darius II, Artaxerxes II, Artaxerxes III, Arses, and Darius III.[6] These kings reigned from 539-332 B.C.E.[7]

Further adding to the complication faced by Landy is a disagreement between Hazal and secular sources regarding the time period of Ahashverosh. According to Hazal, Ahashverosh preceded the Daryavesh in whose reign the Second Temple was built. However, based on the linguistic evidence, it is almost certain that the name Ahashverosh is a reference to Xerxes. According to secular sources, Xerxes reigned from 486-465 B.C.E., after the Temple had been rebuilt in the reign of his father Darius I in 516 B.C.E.

This identification of Ahashverosh with Xerxes was only determined once Old Persian cuneiform was deciphered in the mid-19th century. Once the code was cracked, it was discovered that the name of the king that the Greeks had been referring to as “Xerxes” was in fact “Khshayarsha”; the Greeks could not properly record his name because they did not have a letter to represent the shin sound.[8] “Khshayarsha” is very close to the Hebrew אחשורוש, with the two names identical in their consonantal structure, both centering on the consonantal sounds kh, sh, r and sh, and the Hebrew only adding two vavs and an initial aleph. [9] Even scholars who do not believe in the historicity of the Megillah are typically willing to accept that when the Megillah refers to Ahashverosh, the intent is a reference to Xerxes-Khshayarsha.[10]

Given the large contradictions between the chronology of Hazal and the secular chronology, how did Landy present his material? In Part I, the background section of the book, he presents the chronology of the Persian period according to Hazal in the first chapter, and the chronology according to secular sources in the second.

Later, in Chapter Four, Landy discusses the identity of Ahashverosh. Whereas on p. 42, he is willing to conclude that Ahashverosh is Xerxes,[11] earlier in the chapter, on p. 40, he refers to “we who accept Chazal’s chronology.” These statements cannot be reconciled; if one accepts Hazal’s chronology, then Ahashverosh is between Koresh and Daryavesh, and cannot be Xerxes, who is the son of Darius=Daryavesh.

Of course it is not Landy’s fault that he ends up adopting these inconsistent positions. He was forced into it by feeling obligated to defend Hazal’s difficult chronology of three Persian kings.[12] At the same time, he realizes that the arguments for identifying Ahashverosh/Khshayarsha with Xerxes are compelling. But by taking these inconsistent positions, he was able to achieve his goal of publicizing the visual material to the Orthodox world, who may otherwise be reluctant to acknowledge the historicity of secular sources over Hazal.

A Deep Dive into Archaeology

The main part of Landy’s book is Part II: “Excerpts from Megillas Esther with Related Historical and Archaeological Material.”

Landy provides much interesting information here. For example, we are provided with a picture of a “pur” (lot), pictures and explanations of cuneiform writing, explanations of foreign words in the Megillah, and an explanation of the Babylonian background to the names of our months. We are pointed to a Persian cuneiform inscription which uses an expression similar to “me-Hodo ve-ad Kush.” It is also explained why Ahashverosh’s initial party was not until the third year of his reign (Xerxes was putting down revolts before this), and why Esther was not chosen until his seventh year (Xerxes was away fighting the Greeks). Citations to the fifth century B.C.E. Greek historian Herodotus[13] and to archaeological material abound.

Landy also mentions some archaeological evidence for an individual who might be the Mordecai of the Megillah. Findings at one of the Persian palaces, Persepolis, refer to several palace officials with the name Marduka or Marduku. But it is speculative to think that any of these are references to our Mordecai. (Landy overlooks the most important evidence for the Mordecai of the Megillah: a statement in the ancient Greek historian Ctesias about a high official of Xerxes named “Matacas.”[14])

At times, Landy tries to interpret statements of the Sages as if they are consistent with the historical background stated in Herodotus. For example, at Megillah 11a, Rav tells us that the word “ha-molekh”(1:1) implies that Ahashverosh thrust himself into the throne, even though he was not supposed to rule. Landy observes that we know from Herodotus (Book VII) that Xerxes was not the eldest son of Darius and yet was able to convince his father to name him as successor. But as the Sages and Herodotus had completely different views of the chronology of the period, their historical statements cannot and therefore should not be interpreted in light of one another.

Fortunately, there is a different book that gives an excellent background to the Persian kings of the Biblical period and adopts the correct chronology: Edwin M. Yamauchi’s Persia and the Bible (1990). It is easy to read, with many pictures and charts (though in black and white, unlike Landy’s vivid color), and gives us all the background to the Megillah that we need. In a clear and organized manner, Yamauchi presents all that ancient historians and archaeology teach us about the reigns of kings Cyrus, Cambyses,[15] Darius I, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes I. This period is well-documented in narrative history and in archaeology, which is what generated my interest in the period over 30 years ago.

Yamauchi’s book has 524 pages of historical background. (In contrast, Landy’s book has only 42 pages of historical background, and a large part of them, e.g., pages 1-9 and part of page 40, are following incorrect chronology.) Although published thirty years ago, Yamauchi’s book seems to be little known in the Orthodox world, perhaps because it is meant for general readers, and not specifically for Orthodox Jewish ones. Yamauchi’s book is an excellent way to familiarize oneself with the five kings from Cyrus through Artaxerxes I. Once a reader understands the proper historical background, then the reader can utilize Landy’s book and learn much from the details he provides, such as insights into selected verses in the Megillah, which Yamauchi’s book obviously lacks.

Identifying Esther in Secular Sources

While Landy writes about the identification of Ahashverosh with Xerxes, he does not discuss the identification of Esther in secular sources. Regarding Xerxes’ queen, he writes only (p. 57): “In all archaeological material from the Persian Empire, there is barely any mention of a queen by name.” While this is true, there is much about the wife of Xerxes in narrative sources: in Herodotus, and in the later Greek historian, Ctesias. She is never called “queen” in these sources, but she is the only wife of Xerxes that Herodotus and Ctesias ever mention. Herodotus and Ctesias, writing in Greek, give her name as “Amestris.”

It is understandable that Landy does not want to get into the issue of the possible identification of Esther with Amestris, since Herodotus, in one of his three references to her, tells a story about her cruelty. (Ctesias describes her in unflattering terms as well, but Ctesias is much less known.) Almost every Orthodox writer who understands that Ahashverosh is Xerxes avoids the issue of Xerxes’ queen altogether.[16] But I have discussed this issue extensively and argued strongly for the identification of Esther with Amestris in one of the articles in my Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015).[17]

Unlike Landy, Yamauchi does discuss Amestris. But one flaw in his otherwise excellent book is that he nowhere considers the possibility that Amestris may be Esther. Rather, he raises the possibility that Amestris may be Vashti. But this identification is very difficult in light of the demotion of Vashti referred to early in the reign of Ahashverosh at verse 1:19.

Conclusion

At verse 10:2, the Megillah invites us to search outside the Tanakh for additional information about Ahashverosh. Although the chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia referred to are no longer available, we do have much archaeological material and the writings of Herodotus and some later Greek historians. Both Landy’s book and Yamauchi’s book provide us with useful guides to these materials and the light they shed on the Megillah.


[1] This is the Darius=Daryavesh in whose reign the Temple was rebuilt.

[2] It is not certain that the relief depicts Xerxes, as it is possible that the king depicted may be his son Artaxerxes. In any event, those who sculpted these reliefs tended to give all the Persian kings the same stylized appearance.

[3] The idea that Daryavesh was the son of Ahashverosh is not found in Seder Olam or in the Talmud. It is only a minority view that appears in Leviticus Rabbah (13:5) and Esther Rabbah (8:3). Later it became widely quoted.

[4] See, e.g., Megillah 11b.

[5] Seder Olam and the Talmud obviously do not list “BCE” dates, which need to be calculated. There are different assumptions that have to be made in doing the calculation. While others may calculate differently from the way I do, the result will always be within 1-3 years of the dates I provide.

[6] See, e.g., Ronald Kent, Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon, p. 158 (2nd ed. 1953). In this list I only include kings whose reigns spanned one year or more.

[7] It is clear based on a variety of evidence (e.g., Greek historians, Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions, and certain sections of the Tanakh) that the secular chronology is the correct one, but it is possible to explain the chronology of Seder Olam. The Tanakh provides the data for the early Biblical periods, but stops in the middle of the Persian period, only mentioning a handful of Persian kings by name. To get the length of the entire Second Temple period, R. Yose had to rely on a prediction in the 9th chapter of Daniel that refers to a future 490 year period, the endpoints of which are ambiguous. For various reasons, R. Yose chose to interpret this prediction as referring to a 70 year exilic period and a 420 year Second Temple period. Since it was known that the Second Temple was destroyed in approximately year 380 of the Seleucid Era, this left only 40 years for the total of the Persian period portion of the Second Temple period, and the period from Alexander until the beginning of the Seleucid Era. For more information, see my Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology (1997), pp. 161-72.

[8] For further explanation of the Greek form of his name, see my Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (2015), pp. 135-36.

[9] Based on archaeology, we now know the name of Xerxes not just in Old Persian but in Elamite and Akkadian as well. Both the Elamite and the Akkadian versions of the name also have an initial vowel sound; in Elamite, the name has an initial “i” sound, while in Akkadian, the name usually has an initial “a” sound. With regard to the vavs, sometimes the Megillah spells the name with only one vav, and once, at 10:1, with no vavs.

[10] 2,500 years later there are still people in Iran (and the U.S.) today with the first or last name “Khshayarsha,” or a name derived from it, like “Khashayarsha,” or “Khashayar.”

[11] Landy’s discussion in this chapter is not an adequate one. He understands that linguistically the name Khshayarsha matches the name Ahashverosh, but he does not discuss the fourth chapter of Ezra. There, the sequence of verses 4:5-7 is a strong argument that the Ahashverosh of verse 6 reigned between the Daryavesh of verse 5 and the Artahshasta of verse 7, which corresponds exactly to when Xerxes reigned. The book of Esther had not mentioned which Persian king preceded or followed Ahashverosh, so the mention of Ahashverosh in the fourth chapter of Ezra is crucial to establishing his identity.

The fourth chapter of Ezra has always been a confusing one. Hazal had their own understanding of it, in which Ahashverosh could be placed between Koresh and Daryavesh. But once it was realized in modern times that the name Ahashverosh was a linguistic match to Khshayarsha, then the proper understanding of the chapter came to light. Verses 6-23 are a digression to the two kings that followed Daryavesh and the difficulties the Jews had in their reigns. Verse 24 then resumes the main narrative in the reign of Daryavesh (“a resumptive repetition”). See the article by Richard Steiner, in Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006), pp. 641-85, and the Da’at Mikra to Ezra, pp. 27 and 35.

[12] For example, on p. 40, he reiterates some weak suggestions that have been made by those who follow Hazal’s chronology to attempt to explain the extra kings and years that exist in secular history. For example, he considers the possibility that some of the people labeled as kings were only assistant kings and that it is therefore an error to include their years in the tally. Such suggestions can easily be refuted.

[13] A major part of Herodotus’ Histories discusses the first seven years of the reign of Xerxes. Herodotus also writes much about the reigns of Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius. Herodotus has been called the “Father of History.” (But he has also been called the “Father of Lies!”)

[14] See my Esther Unmasked, pp. 161-63. Ctesias’ work dates to the early 4th century B.C.E.

[15] Cambyses is alluded to in the ve-ad of Ezra 4:5.

[16] One who does deal with the issue is Gavriel Chaim Cohen, in his introduction to the Megillah in Mossad HaRav Kook’s Hamesh Megillot (Da’at Mikra). While he realized that Ahashverosh was Xerxes, he was unwilling to identify Esther with Amestris. He took the position that Esther was never the main wife of Xerxes, but was one of other wives of a lesser status. But this position cannot be reconciled with verse 2:17. Moreover, Esther is called ha-malkah 17 times thereafter. In contrast, Da’at Mikra to Trei Asar, vol. 2, in an appendix, suggests (with a question mark) that Amestris is Esther, but does not include any discussion.

Most recently, Erica Brown, in the new Maggid edition of Esther (2020), writes only: “Some have tried to link Esther directly with Amestris or Amestris with Vashti, but either identification is improbable” (p. 250). She does not discuss the issue further.

[17] PP. 129-67. Very briefly, a close examination of the name “Amestris” supports its identification with Esther. The “is” at the end was just a suffix added in Greek to turn the foreign name into proper Greek grammatical form, just as “es” was added at the end of “Xerxes.” When comparing the remaining consonants, the name of the wife of Xerxes is recorded in Herodotus and Ctesias is based around the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the name as recorded in the Megillah is based around the consonants S, T, and R. Out of the numerous possible consonants in these languages, three consonants are the same and in the same order, and it is very unlikely that this is mere coincidence. Perhaps her Persian name was composed of the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the M was not preserved in the Hebrew. We do not have any Persian sources for her name.

With regard to the unflattering depictions of Amestris by Herodotus and Ctesias, these can be easily discounted. Since the Greeks and Persians were enemies, it is very easy to take the position that the tales told by the Greek historians about the Persian royal women should not be believed. A mainstream view today is that what the Greek historians wrote about the Persian royal women should be viewed as literature and not as history.

More responses to the difficulties raised with the identification of Amestris with Esther can be found in my article on the topic in Esther Unmasked.